At the age of eleven, most children across the country are entering sixth grade, having first crushes, going to the movies by themselves for the first time, or going to their first school dances. When Sherry Johnson turned eleven years old, she was being married off to her 20-year-old rapist.
Johnson, after being raped four times by a member of her church resulting in impregnation, was forced into a marriage by her family and church officials as means to avoid the child welfare investigations that had begun. All of this was made possible because in 47 out of the 50 states in the U.S., there is no legislation passed that entirely prohibits child marriage.
Continuing to believe that child marriage is a problem that does not inhabit the United States is only enabling the issue. Sherry Johnson was not alone in marriage while under the age of 18; according to a study from Unchained At Last, an organization against forced marriages, in only the 38 states that were accounted for, 167,000 people under the age of 18 were married between 2000 and 2010 (the actual number with all states accounted for is estimated to be around 250,000). The majority of these marriages were between an under-aged female and an adult male.
“You can’t get a job, you can’t get a car, you can’t get a license, you can’t sign a lease,” Johnson said, “so why allow someone to marry when they’re still so young?”
In 27 states, there is no law that specifies any sort of minimum age for a child to be married at all, and other states have a minimum as low as 14. While most states have laws that bar child marriage, judicial consent or parent’s permission acts as an exception, leaving many children victims of forced/arranged marriages like Sherry Johnson.
“They took the handcuffs from handcuffing him to handcuffing me, by marrying me without me knowing what I was doing,” Johnson said.
Children stuck in these marriages have little to no way out due to flawed legalities. Most often, child marriages that are administered with parental and judicial consent are a result of pressure put on the child, leaving the girls in the relationship feeling helpless and fearful to object their own families. Children under 18 who flee from homes are considered runaways, forcing social services and shelters to legally have to turn them away. Additionally, children are unable to carry out legal actions in their own name, leaving them with the allowance of marriage, but not divorce. Despite the contradiction of statutory rape laws and child marriage, often times the marriage acts as a form of consent and is seen as a kind of exemption.
Ignoring children who are being forced into binding relationships with their rapists has gone on for too long: an alteration to state legislation in regards to child marriage is a necessity.
The United States, in a State Department document published in 2016, referred to overseas child marriage as a “human rights abuse that contributes to economic hardship,” but child marriage in our own country is still being permitted due to faulty legislation.
“Americans tend to think of marriage as a beautiful, happy, romantic thing. It’s important to know that marriage before 18 is not romantic and beautiful and happy. It is something ugly,” founder of Unchained At Last and victim of child marriage Fraidy Reiss said. “For almost all of them, marriage means rape on their wedding night and thereafter.”